Racing: Milkshake dispute leaves bitter taste

A probe into an illegal substance is causing ripples.
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IF YOU'VE ever wondered why you've never seen a horse walk into McDonald's and order a milkshake, some bizarre fallout over the last few days from the Breeders' Cup has offered an answer. Private eyes, tubes up noses, a famous British trainer - this story has it all, and it may not have run its course just yet.

The villain of the piece, depending on your point of view, could be a pound of sodium bicarbonate dissolved in a litre of water, sugar and electrolyte, a mixture known to American trainers as a milkshake. Or it could be the trainers themselves, who administer the 'shake through a tube inserted into a horse's stomach via its nose, which cannot be a pleasant process for man or beast. The effect, so American training lore has it, is to act as a buffer to lactic acid which builds up in a horse's muscle tissue during a race, thereby delaying the onset of fatigue.

Then again, it could be Michael Dickinson, who is best known in this country for saddling the first five horses home in the 1983 Cheltenham Gold Cup. That, at least, is the opinion of many American trainers, after two private detectives, hired by Dickinson and carrying passes issued to him, were apprehended in the backstretch at Gulfstream Park in Miami, shortly before the Breeders' Cup two weeks ago.

Dickinson is thought to have hired the detectives to conduct a surveillance operation on his fellow trainers with runners at the meeting, particularly those whose horses arrived at the track only a short time before the race. This would make it easier to administer an illegal substance, most obviously a milkshake, to a horse immediately before it arrived in the paddock.

Milkshakes are illegal in most American states, including Florida. In Kentucky, though, the procedure is legal, so long as it is administered more than four hours before the horse is due to race. It is impossible to tell from a post-race blood sample whether a horse has been given a milkshake. The only way it can be detected is via a pre-race test to measure the level of carbon dioxide in the blood.

Dickinson has already been cleared of any breach of the rules of racing. He may yet face a law suit, though, from the trainer James Bond, who alleges that the horsebox carrying his two runners in the Breeders' Cup Classic, Behrens and Val's Prince, to the racecourse was harassed by one of Dickinson's investigators.

Opportunities to wonder at the weird ways of the States do not come much better than this. But it is also natural to ask whether a relatively undetectable way of giving a horse a competitive advantage might not have found its way to this side of the Atlantic too.

The Jockey Club, however, is relatively unconcerned about the prospect, although it is currently investigating whether its threshold level for blood carbon dioxide is appropriate. "We constantly hear all sorts of rumours about all sort of things," John Maxse, the Club's spokesman, said yesterday, "but as yet we have not heard even anecdotal evidence that milkshakes are being used in this country. If we did receive any information that led us to believe otherwise, we would have the power to order pre- race blood tests."

Nor is there any firm evidence that the mixture actually does what it is intended to do. "There have been a few scientific studies carried out by exercise physiologists, and the evidence is by no means clear-cut," Peter Webbon, the Jockey Club's chief veterinary advisor, said yesterday. "You'll see one study that seems to show a possible benefit, and then another which is less clear. The jury is out really, and it would also have to be done just before a race, which obviously has practical implications."

In the aftermath of Dickinson's attempts at surveillance, runners in the Breeders' Cup may in future be required to arrive at the track well in advance of their races. Rather appropriately, though, it may yet turn out that concerns about the performance-enhancing effects of the milkshake itself are just a lot of froth.